Murder on the High Seas: When Israel Attacked America Part 2

Remember When

On June 8, 1967, a sunny day with visibility of twenty-five miles or more, the USS Liberty, an intelligence-gathering (aka spy) ship was sailing in international waters off the coast of El Arish between Egypt and Gaza. It was the fourth day of the Six Day War between Israel on one side and Egypt, Jordan and Syria on the other. Israel was well on her way to winning the war having already demolished Egypt’s air force. At about 2:00 P.M., on day four, the Israelis carried out an unprovoked, brazen attack on the Liberty and its crew. Using airplanes, torpedo boats and helicopters, the IDF (Israel Defense Force), murdered 34 American seamen, wounded 174 others and came close to sinking the ship. Click here to read Part 1 where you will find the complete story of the attack, the events leading up to it and the comments and observations of survivors and government officials who were part of the cover-up or had first-hand knowledge of it.

In his farewell address, George Washington took particular pains to warn Americans to avoid a “passionate attachment” to another nation so as not to create “the illusion of a common interest…where no common interest exists.” In the second half of the twentieth century, the U.S. chose to ignore that warning and entered into a longstanding relationship (aka the “special relationship”) with another much smaller nation, Israel. The costs of that misguided attachment have been widespread and enormous. Financial costs to the tune $3.8 Billion make the trip from the U.S. Treasury to Israel every year. Israel is the largest recipient in the world of U.S. foreign aid. In 1968, the year after the Israeli attack on the Liberty, the Johnson administration, no doubt to reward the Israelis for their heinous act, increased the amount four-fold. Political costs resound throughout the Middle East as U.S. aid and support for Israel’s military adventures destabilize the area and build up animosity against U.S. interference. As a nation that prides itself on setting the moral tone for the world (although few other countries would agree with that estimation), the U.S. has further besmirched its reputation by looking the other way as Israel colonizes the West Bank and Gaza and permits illegal Israeli settlements to flourish on Palestinian land.

Nowhere has the U.S. bias for all things Israel been more evident than in the aftermath of the attack on the USS Liberty. The attempt to shield Israel from responsibility (aka cover-up) launched into high gear shortly after the crippled ship managed to complete its slow and painful way to the port of Malta. Although there was a total news blackout (remember no Internet or alternate media in 1967), the Pentagon’s purity campaign experienced a few glitches. Like the Pentagon spokesman who obviously had not received the memo telling a reporter that the attack could not have been an accident because it had happened at close quarters on a clear day. For his crime of truth-telling, the spokesman found himself out of that job. His replacement stonewalled further questions.

Things got so hairy that several presidential advisors were in favor of sinking the Liberty (presumably before it docked) to make sure reporters couldn’t ferret out the truth and ruin the cover-up. Unlike their elected leaders, the American public might have demanded accountability had the true story leaked out. That never happened and plans to sink the Liberty were shelved when the NSA (National Security Agency, chief U.S. spook agency) flatly rejected the plan.

Adding insult to injury, the U.S. Congress never opened an official (or unofficial) investigation of the circumstances surrounding the attack, making it the first time Congress had abdicated its responsibility to investigate when U.S. citizens or property are attacked by another country. To judge by the royal reception Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu received when he addressed a joint session of Congress in 2015 with 29 standing ovations (only 58 Congress people declined to attend, a mere 11%) and by the current witch hunt against those daring to call out Israel for war crimes against inhabitants in the occupied territories, the attack is destined to remain a deep, dark, unholy secret.

Which is why we’re talking about it.

New Evidence

The government’s cover-up moved into high gear as the enormity of the crime against U.S. citizens and property emerged. Relatives of the thirty-four victims found their contact with the outside world (specifically the press) tightly controlled. When the injured were taken off the ship, no reporters were allowed in the vicinity. At the hospital, guards were posted outside the rooms of survivors.

The efforts of the U.S. to protect Israel got even more outrageous. Hundreds of body parts, torn off both living and dead seamen were collected and put in body bags. Wanting to dispose of them quickly to conceal what was in fact damning evidence of Israel’s crime, 168 body bags were quietly burned in an incinerator.  In keeping with that obscene tradition, after the 9/11 attack, human remains were similarly destroyed.

As the Liberty crew was dealing with the physical, emotional and psychological consequences of the death and destruction they witnessed, the U.S. government racheted up the pressure. Captain Isaac Kidd who presided over the sham Naval Court of Inquiry issued a gag order to the surviving crew claiming he was following orders issued by Defense Secretary McNamara — “Answer no questions. If you are backed into a corner, then you may say that it was an accident and that Israel had apologized. You may say nothing else.

The Liberty crew as well as the seamen on the USS Davis, the ship that finally came to their aid, even the dock workers at Malta were threatened with court martial if they talked about the “incident” even to their wives. Larry Weaver, a survivor, was told in no uncertain terms “If you ever repeat this [that Israel was the perp] … you will be put in prison and forgotten about.”

Support Liberty Crew

Many of the men who were killed could have been saved had the U.S. not actively intervened to prevent rescue attempts., Captain Joe Tully, former commander of the aircraft carrier Saratoga, disclosed to those attending the 28th anniversary of the Liberty Veterans Association that he had received the one distress call the Liberty crew had managed to send out and had dispatched aircraft to help the ailing ship. Immediately he was ordered by the “highest authority” to recall the planes. “The White House deliberately prevented the U.S. Navy from coming to the defense of the ship… never before in naval history has a rescue mission been cancelled when an American ship was under attack.” According to survivor Ronald Kukal, Captain Tully also claimed that President Johnson knew about the attack before it happened.

The stage-managed Court of Inquiry convened two days after the attack on June 10, 1967. More damning than the twisted and made-up “facts” presented at the Inquiry were the omissions. MIA were the sworn testimony of crew who had witnessed the machine gunning of stretchers and life boats. The statements of Liberty crew members still recovering from their injuries and unable to attend the proceedings were likewise omitted. Other testimony pointing to Israel’s guilt was either expunged or modified.

The most conclusive evidence of Israel’s responsibility for the murder of thirty-four Americans, the life-changing injuries of 174 others and the destruction of a U.S. naval vessel came from Captain Ward Boston, counsel for the Court of Inquiry. He initially went along with the fairy tale Israel had concocted that the entire affair was a “grievous” case of “mistaken identity.” Having stewed about his participation in the conspiracy to hold Israel blameless for thirty-seven years, finally in 2004, in a sworn affidavit, he revealed his “outrage at the effort of apologists for Israel in this country to claim that this attack was a case of ‘mistaken identity.’ He delineated the cover-up— “Admiral Kidd [presiding judge] and I… felt it necessary to… interview the Israelis who took part in the attack… Admiral Kidd told me that Admiral McCain [father of the late Senator McCain and convening authority of the Court] was adamant that we were not to travel to Israel or contact the Israelis concerning this matter.” Captain Boston was holding nothing back, witness his explosive charges about the deep roots of the cover-up —

Standing Up to Israel

“I know… that President Lyndon Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara ordered him [Captain Kidd] to conclude that the attack was a case of mistaken identity despite … overwhelming evidence to the contrary… he had been ordered to sit down with two civilians… and rewrite portions of the Court’s findings… he had been ordered to ‘put the lid on’ everything having to do with the attack… It is important for the American people to know… that Israel is responsible for deliberately attacking an American ship and murdering American sailors whose bereaved colleagues have lived with this egregious conclusion for years.”

 Captain (at the time) Merlin Staring was the last in the chain of Navy officials to review the findings of the Court. What did he think of them? Not much. “I am of the firmest conviction that the Liberty survivors have suffered an unprecedented injustice at the hands of our very own Navy and government…”

The next task for officials determined to keep Israeli finger prints off the attack was the matter of medals. The Liberty was the most decorated ship in U.S. naval history for a single event. Would it surprise you to learn that all of the medals awarded shortly after the attack didn’t mention Israeli culpability? Not only was Israel’s guilt suppressed but medal winners were warned — “Don’t ever tell anyone where you got it.”

It wasn’t until 2009, forty-two years later, that the inscription on a medal (in this case a Silver Star) matched the facts — “The President takes pleasure in awarding the Silver Star to James Terry Halbardier… for conspicuous… intrepidity in action… The USS Liberty was attacked by Israeli aircraft and motor torpedo boats…”

Then there was that glorious moment in late1968 when it was announced that Captain McGonagle would be receiving the Medal of Honor the highest award which can be bestowed on a member of the military. The major concern at the White House over the awarding of the medal hinged on Israel’s reaction to it. Would they be offended? “The government is pretty jumpy about Israel. The State Department even asked the Israeli ambassador if his government had any objections to McGonagle getting the award… [Israel claimed not to object]. But to avoid any possible offense, McGonagle’s citations does not mention Israel…and the award ceremony kept the lowest possible profile.” (Naval officer involved in the selection process)

So low that President Johnson refused to hold the Medal presentation at the White House, the only time in the modern era that the Medal of Honor was not presented by the president in a public ceremony at the White House. Instead the Secretary of the Navy did the honors at the Washington Navy Yard. Many of the Navy brass were outraged. Admiral Thomas Moorer, head of Naval Operations, chief among them — “…it irked the hell out of me when McGonagle’s ceremony was relegated to the… Washington Navy Yard… President Johnson must have been concerned about the reaction of the Israel lobby.”

Although Captain McGonagle played good soldier and publicly did not criticize the “mistaken identity” conclusion of the Court for many years, shortly before he died in 1999, he wrote a letter to President Clinton calling on Israel to publicly admit that her armed forces had deliberately attacked the Liberty. President Clinton never bothered to respond.

Did Liberty survivors ever receive the justice that was due them? Most of them would say no. Throughout the years, congressional staffers from both sides of the aisle have been given indisputable evidence of Israel’s culpability, but neither Congress, the White House nor the Department of Justice ever tried to reopen the tainted inquiry.

Small triumphs still give some Liberty survivors reason to hope that the truth will one day come out. Take the case of the inscription on the headstone of the mass grave of six Liberty sailors. President Johnson ordered the inscription to omit any mention of the attack — “Died in the Eastern Mediterranean, June 8,1967. After years of pressure by Liberty veterans, the inscription was amended to read “Killed, USS Liberty, June 8, 1967.”

Insults and slights by U.S. officials often bordered on the absurd. Two graduates of the Naval Academy killed in the attack were initially denied the privilege of having their names inscribed on the Academy’s memorial wall of honor. Navy big wings at the school ruled that since their deaths were “accidental,” they were not eligible for the honor. Admiral Thomas Moorer, a long-time champion of Liberty veterans, made short work of that nonsense and soon their names were placed on the wall along with other navy heroes.

Why is it so difficult for any U.S. politician or media personality to come to terms with the enormity of Israel’s crime? In a surprisingly candid and cowardly admission, Paul Krugman discussed how the U.S. “special relationship” with Israel works— “I basically avoid thinking about where Israel is going… the narrow-minded policies of the current government are… a long form of national suicide… But I have other battles to fight and to say anything to that effect is to bring yourself under intense attack from organized groups that try to make any criticism of Israeli policies tantamount to anti-Semitism.” (NYT 4/24/2012)

Liberty Burning

Could it have been otherwise? Could the lives of 34 young men been spared and the horror that trailed the lives of the rest of the crew avoided? George Ball, Under Secretary of State in the Johnson administration and fierce critic of Johnson’s handling of the attack, thought so —

“The Liberty’s presence and function were known to Israel’s leaders. They presumably thought it vital that the Liberty be prevented from informing Washington of their intention to violate the cease fire before they had completed their occupation of the Golan Heights. Their solution was brutal and direct… Apprised of Israel’s plans from various sources, the U.S.Navy Department faced a delicate problem. Due regard for the lives of America’s naval personnel should have impelled the Navy to urge the State Department to warn off Israel in no uncertain terms; meanwhile the Navy should have warned the Liberty to its danger and dispatched ships or planes for its protection. But none of these actions was taken in time.”

Have we learned anything at all in five decades? One official has. In 2008, Admiral Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, took decisive action to prevent history from repeating itself. According to Ray McGovern, former CIA analyst and whistleblower, when Admiral Mullen got wind of Israel’s plan to attack Iran, he made a bee line to Israel to lay down the law to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Mullen bluntly told Olmert that the U.S. would not support such an attack. As the clincher, he referenced the Liberty warning him not to try a similar move. Olmert got the message.

Was Paul Krugman right. Is it too much of a career-killer for any politician to speak out against murderous Israeli policies like in Gaza and the West Bank that the UN Human Rights Commission recently called “a possible war crime?” Even as recently as 2004, political and military leaders were emboldened to condemn Israeli policies without fear of being tarnished with the smear of anti-Semitism. In 2019 that is no longer possible. What happened? Ask Representative Ilhan Omar how truth tellers fare in a society with little tolerance for opinions running counter to mainstream adoration of America’s “best friend.”

It’s time to take a long, hard look at America’s unquestioning support for Israel. The attack on the Liberty happened fifty-two years ago but with little support from their own country survivors and victims’ families are still dealing with the tragic loss. Cries of anti-Semitism silence those brave souls who accuse Israel of multiple war crimes, including the horrific attack on the Liberty. All Americans lose when the boundaries of free speech narrow. We should have learned that lesson fifty-two years ago and now we are facing a refresher course. The all-hands-on-deck campaign to stave off criticism of Israel in the U.S. threatens to make the first amendment as extinct as the dodo bird.

If you haven’t read Part 1 and wish to, Click here

Liberty Monument


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